Commentary: What does accountability look like?

  • Published
  • By Chief Master Sgt. Donald E. Felch
  • Air National Guard advisor to the Barnes Center
It was late -- or was it early?

Swing shift started at 4 p.m. and it was now 3:30 a.m. We had configured, loaded, and inspected eleven A-10A aircraft overnight: Six with live weapons and five with training munitions for the next day's missions. All 11 would fly in support of either test and evaluation or the Air Force's elite Fighter Weapons School.

It was hot. Although the sun had set many hours before, the dry Nevada desert still radiated heat. Temperatures had just dipped into the upper 80s over the past hour.

More than anything, we all just wanted to go home.

I was a young staff sergeant serving as a load crew chief. That morning, my crew was picking up triple ejector racks, or TERs, from the flight line and returning them to the ready line near our building. Each rack was 67 inches long and weighed 105 pounds. They required two Airmen to lift. Since the distance between each wingtip was so short, one of my crew members sat in the driver's seat of the truck while two of us walked between aircraft placing TERs on the trailer. Strapping the trailer down between each aircraft, then subsequently unstrapping them a moment later, would have taken more time than the actual job at each stop. I had decided wasted time was counterintuitive to our primary mission: Going home. At the end of the row, the driver turned the truck to begin gathering TERs from the facing row of aircraft.

Rumble, Crash! One of the TERs tumbled off of the trailer and hit the flight line, bending its fragile fairing and popping two sway brace pads out of their sockets. We all said bad words.

Later estimates: $300 in parts and materials; 14 hours of mechanical, sheet-metal and paint repairs; the involvement of two squadrons, three back shops and technicians in three different Air Force specialty codes, quite a resource-intensive impact for want of a two-minute strap job. Oh, and we did not get home until after the sun came up, more than four hours later. But this is not a story of what we should have done, rather a story of what consequences our crew faced as a result, and the impact of those consequences on one Airman's career.

First, my technical sergeant expediter briefed my two Airmen that the process we had been following was flawed, and that the TERs should have been strapped before the truck was placed in gear. Significant takeaway for me: I had not briefed them on that requirement. The message was that if I wasn't going to establish a safety and compliance environment, my leadership would establish it for me. Second, as their crew chief, I received a letter of reprimand from the master sergeant flight chief for violating technical data and Air Force policy.

This letter was executed at the flight level. On the letter, I distinctly recall reading that if further violations of Air Force policy occurred, more serious actions would be necessary (or words to that effect). Using a few small signals, with consequences remaining at the flight level and leaving the responsibility to keep it there with me, my immediate supervision reinforced a culture of accountability. I was accountable for my decisions and actions.

Today, it is common to believe "doing paperwork" is a serious step -- and it is -- but just because we document counseling sessions, admonitions or reprimands does NOT mean we are damaging someone's career. Correctly using administrative corrective actions is more likely to save a career than to harm one. My enlisted performance report after the TER drop did not reflect poor performance or a poor track record. This was a one-time error in judgment, but it was also a violation of Air Force policy and a safety risk that wound up costing my unit significant resources to fix. Allowing the event to pass without any corrective action would have been irresponsible.

After my reprimand, I never transported equipment, even between aircraft, without first strapping it down. I also became the Aircraft Maintenance Unit's self-appointed "strap NCO." To this day, I will check trailer security on the rare occasion I find myself visiting an Air Force flight line. Holding Airmen accountable for their actions is not "old school." It is necessary. It is vital to our Air Force mission today. Failing to hold our Airmen accountable for their assigned responsibilities is a failure of leadership.

Such failures result in bad habits, which in turn lead to a culture of non-compliance, failed inspections, damaged equipment, injuries, lost lives and combat ineffectiveness.

As we lead today in the greatest Air Force our country has ever known, we owe it to those who have placed special trust in us -- the American people -- to hold ourselves and one another accountable. The shining example of accountability my flight-level leadership set for me in 1992 remains with me today. It is part of who I am.

It is a significant part of the leader I am. Let's not fail to hold today's generation accountable.